Forty '90s Albums That Still Hold Up

The cover of U2's Achtung Baby
The cover of U2's Achtung Baby

Steve Wiley is Up on the Sun's resident Record Store Geek. He shares stories of great music and wacky characters from his continuing 27 years in Valley record stores and the always zany music biz.

At the end of July, I wrote about Five Reasons I Don't Write About New Music, the most important of which is that new music hasn't stood the test of time. I prefer to talk about the stuff that holds up.

Over the years, I've given you all recommendations on jazz, blues, soul, even Brazilian music. I explained which decade of music was the best ('67-'77), and I even made a list of great albums from the worst decade (The '80s, duh).

But I haven't gotten a chance to lead you through the '90s ... and whether you like it or not, my aging brothers and sisters, that decade started almost 25 years ago! No time like the present, so here's 40 Albums From the '90s That Still Hold Up.

I realize tackling the '90s is going to get me in trouble. It's a high and mighty decade.

All you have to do is go through a couple of the critics' lists to see how many wonder bands made their mark in the 20th century's final decade. The kind of bands critics love. The kind that a huge majority of record geeks idolize.

You know, the alternative bands.

What is now the most ironic term in music was the only moniker that many of the music elitists of the '90s would allow in their ears.

The "A" word, and a good deal of the bands it represented, annoyed me then, and it annoys me now.

Look at the Pitchfork list. See what I mean? It's exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned that critics are full of shit.

Holy alterna-pretentious hilarity, Batman. They all look like that. One of them says they love a band, and they all join in.

So yes, I want to do this.

Now, I'm not saying that I don't like any of the albums on the "Best of the '90s" critics' list, nor am I questioning whether many of my "non-faves" deserve to be on the list.

But it doesn't matter, because no matter how you slice it, the '90s were loaded with quality music.

The list is huge.

FORTY? Never in my life have a made such a monster.

As it is, I had to whittle the list down.

As you'll see, its way off the beaten path of the general critics list. It doesn't include many of the all-time classics (Nevermind, 10, OK Computer, Under the Table and Dreaming), simply because they were worn out so bad with in-store and radio play that I don't listen to them anymore.

I'm not talking about then. I'm talking about now.

And I'm asking the ultimate questions about the creative art of the album: 1) Do they still hold up two decades later? and 2) Do I still listen to them now, or did they wear-out or grow dated?

Let's take a look.


40 '90s Albums That Still Hold Up

If you've ever read one of my lists, you know I need to clarify the process. I take these stinkin' lists seriously.

The rules of the list:

  • One album per group. Although many of these groups have more than one '90s album that holds up (Widespread Panic, Tragically Hip, etc.) for the sake of diversity, it's one per list.
  • Even though there are numbers, it's not a ranking.

40. Fountains of Wayne - Utopia Parkway (1999). Still as catchy and hilarious as ever.

39. Blind Melon - Blind Melon (1992). Forget the fucking bee girl from the video, this album is guaranteed to get your blood pumping.

38. Barenaked Ladies - Gordon (1992). Brilliant lyrics and a harmony that I haven't heard since. They never matched it.

37. Big Head Todd and the Monsters - Midnight Radio (1991) Where were the critics on this one? Recorded in his basement, it still sounds fresh.

36. Dada - Puzzle (1992) I hear my 16-year old son cranking this often (especially "Dog"). Except for "Dizz Knee Land," I love it all.

35. Whiskeytown - Stranger's Almanac (1997). Ryan Adams is still great, but the creative period between this album and his solo Gold will never be beaten.

34. Guru - Jazzmatazz, Volume 1. (1993) Believe it or not, I've heard a lot of hip-hop over the years. This is one of the only hip-hop albums I still put on.

33. Diana Krall - All For You (1996). Tough call between Love Scenes and this one, but I'll take the Nat King Cole tribute from this living jazz legend.

32. Matthew Sweet - Altered Beast (1993). Again, tough call between this and Girlfriend... so I'll take the least obvious of the two. Such a solid artist.

31. Black Crowes - The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992). Brilliant. Perhaps my favorite album of the '90s? Let me think about that for another 20 years.


30. Live - Throwing Copper (1994). If I never hear the three hits again, I'll be fine. But the rest of the album still kicks ass all the way through. Mental Jewelry still holds too.

29. U2 - Achtung Baby (1991). Even though the hits from Joshua Tree made me mildly hate U2, this album somehow melted my animosity. One of the few number ones on the list (in case you don't remember, the decade's hit music was really, really bad)

28. Phish - Picture of Nectar (1991). Did you know Phish didn't just play concerts? Like the Grateful Dead, they are more famous for their shows than their albums, but this one still holds up as a recording. One of the coolest bands I've ever met.

27. Queensryche - Empire (1990). Say it with me: Queenryche is NOT a hair band.

26. Soul Hat - Good to Be Gone (1994). Yeah, I know -- you've never heard of them. Well, if you are a jam band fan, you should "hear of them" right now.

25. Widespread Panic - Everyday (1993). WSP made a bunch of good albums in the '90s. This is the best of 'em. Try "Diner."

24. Crowded House - Woodface (1991) Second only to '88's Temple of Low Men, this album still pleases me greatly.

23. Horace Silver - The Hardbop Grandpop (1996) The recently deceased Mr. Silver truly lives up to his name on this jamming little hard-bop classic. Do yourself a favor and listen to it.

22. Uncle Tupelo - No Depression (1990). I didn't even hear it until the end of the decade. Jeff Tweedy pre-Wilco. One my former business partner's many timeless recommendations.

21. Jamiroquai - The Return of the Space Cowboy (1994). I keep waiting for the sort of dance vibe to wear out on me, but it has not. I'm not heading to any clubs any time soon, but I dig this sort of funk.  

20. Ben Harper and Innocent Criminals - Fight for Your Mind (1995). I love Ben and the boys. This is one of four albums I still listen to, the best of the best.

19. God Street Wine - $1.99 Romances (1995). Another "Who?" from you, I'm sure. I don't care. These boys can play and this album always makes me perk up.

18. Francis Dunnery - Tall Blonde Helicopter (1995). The most underrated album of the entire decade in my book. I still can't believe he didn't make it big.

17. Femi Kuti - Shoki Shoki (1999). One of the first world music albums I embraced. The son of the legend Fela Kuti led me to an expanded collection and a lot of great stuff.

16. Buena Vista Social Club - Buena Vista Social Club (1997). A completely powerful in-store play seller. Timeless Cuban classic. I was lucky enough to see them in New York City.

15. Incognito - Positivity (1994). Jazzy R&B, featuring the powerful voice of Maysa Leak, which I discovered upon meeting my beautiful wife (who was my ultimate '90s discovery).

14. Jeff Healey Band - Hell to Pay (1990). Blues-rock at its finest. How do you not love a cool blind guy who plays the guitar on his lap? Both of his trio's first two albums still hold up.

13. Jellyfish - Bellybutton (1990). This silly little album reminds of such a great era in my life (for that matter, so does the whole decade). Totally unique to this day.

12. Lenny Kravitz - Mama Said (1991) Poor Lenny. I can still hear his broken heart to this day. A '70s sound, created in the '90s, that still sounds now.

11. Joe Jackson - Laughter and Lust (1991). Critics would say it was even in Joe's top five, but I just love it to death. Witty, catchy, groovy.


10. John Mellencamp - Whenever We Wanted (1991). It's really the only post-John Cougar album I listen to anymore. I like the fact John stood for stuff, but it got almost formulaic, and this album just rocked.

9. Los Lobos - Colossal Head (1996). Hey, critics like this one too. Put it on, now. Kiko would have been good, too.

8. Paul Weller - Wild Wood (1993). Another '90s champion. I still listen to at least four Weller albums.

7. Robben Ford and the Blue Line - Robben Ford and the Blue Line (1992). Stopped me in my tracks the first time a fellow geek played it. Still sounds great today. The boy can play.

6. Wilco - Summerteeth (1999). The only Wilco album I listen to more is Sky Blue Sky . . . but this thing still flows like cool water.

5. The The - Dusk (1993). Back then, I knew the youthful torture that Matt describes throughout this album (starting immediately on track one). Luckily, I'm past that stage now... but this album helps me feel it from a distance.

4. Tragically Hip - Road Apples (1991). One of the very best of the decade. One of the greatest live bands ever (watch the fuckin' video, please). Fully Completely is equally good.

3. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Into the Great Wide Open (1991). The only one of Tom's '90s albums that I really liked. Still, one of the only '70s legends to make the list (check out the new album as well, very good).

2. Marc Cohn - The Rainy Season (1993). Quality music, and safe to play with the wife and kids in the car, so it's been in rotation forever.

1. Ben Folds Five - Whatever and Ever Amen (1997). That crafty little Ben Folds. He's written a lot of good music. He's never matched this album though.

There you go. More proven albums to consider.

Even though some of them are older than you are, they're new to you, so you might as well give them a try.

After all, there's bound to be something you dig, and unlike the kids of the '90s, you can be listening to them in a matter of minutes, without having to even buy 'em.

Just like the music of the '90s, you gotta love that.

Thanks for reading.

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